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My Days and My Ways

An Autobiography

by Robert Roberts


CHAPTER  TWENTY-THREE:  Removal to Birmingham.


Dr. Thomas having taken his departure for America, after spending the best part of a year in Britain, the few brethren in Birmingham began to press me on the subject of removing to that place.  They represented that many, having heard Dr. Thomas, were interested in the truth, and would be sure to attend the meetings if there was anyone able to present it to them, but that there was no one among them able to do so, and that if nothing were done, the interest would die away, and nothing come of it.  Dr. Thomas had suggested to them the desirability of my settling among them, and therefore they felt the more bold in the matter.  I replied in the way I had replied to Dr. Thomas –that I doubted if I could get suitable employment in Birmingham, seeing the Birmingham papers were daily papers, and that I must limit myself to weekly work if I was to be of service to the truth.  They answered that there were two weekly papers in Birmingham, which was true, but not in the sense of my requirements.  The two weekly papers were connected with the two daily papers, and were a mere abridgment of the matter appearing in the dailies –an abridgment effected by the same staff.  I could not get employment on the weeklies except by being on the dailies, which would be worse.


Well, they said they would try their best to get me in somewhere, and they truly and diligently did so, but of course without result, except in a very indirect way.  A sister among them, housekeeper to a single retired and very retiring gentleman, who lived in the better part of Birmingham, took a very prominent part in this work of trying to open my way.  She called at the newspaper offices and got all the information she could, and recommended me to their attention when a vacancy should occur, and kept sending me papers with likely advertisements through the post.  Her diligence and pertinacity were great, with this effect –( being backed up by the importunities of the others with whom she was in association) –that I made up my mind, if an opening should occur, to try the experiment of a situation on a daily paper.


Having arrived at this decision, the sister in question –(with whom I was sorry afterwards to part on Dowieite issues: how many heart-griefs of this kind there have been!) –suggested that I should come through to Birmingham and see the persons in authority at the newspaper offices.  I acted on the suggestion, with the result that I had a promise of a situation on The Gazette on the occurrence of a vacancy which they expected in eight weeks’ time (at the Christmas of 1863).   On my return to Huddersfield, I informed my employer, and my employer, without any definite understanding on my part, took the information as notice, and made arrangements with a gentleman to fill my place at Christmas.  This I did not know till the time drew near.  I supposed that if the Birmingham prospect should fall through, I would be at liberty to stay on in my Huddersfield place as a matter of course: otherwise, I would have kept my own counsel.  In that case, things would in all probability have gone differently with me afterwards, and I might to this day have been in Yorkshire.  However, it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.  He may think he is directing his own steps at the very moment that God has His hand on the helm, influencing the thoughts on which his steps depend, and of this influence he would not of course be aware.  He would only feel that the thoughts were his own.


My employer’s action was perfectly reasonable, especially as my heart was not sufficiently in newspaper work to give me that zeal which makes a servant valuable to an employer, and as he had his eye on an excellent man after his own heart.  But though reasonable, it was a little upsetting when I was informed from Birmingham that the prospective vacancy would not occur and that I would not be wanted.  It then became a pressing question.  What was to be done?  It became known that I was leaving The Examiner, and that a prospect on which I was relying had vanished.  Following on this, I had four offers: I forget now from where.  One I think was from Bradford, one from Leeds, one from Oldham- the other I don’t remember.  Here was an embarrassing situation for me and my partner to consider: leaving Huddersfield for the sake of the truth in Birmingham: the Birmingham door closed and four other open.  We pondered the matter for some time.  On the face of it, it seemed as if the indications of Providence were all against Birmingham.  But the truth had been for years our first consideration; and we could not help feeling that, by this rule, the four open doors were not open doors.  They seemed, as things were at that time, to lead away from the field of operations.  And besides, there were four of them.  If there had been only one, it might have been easier to think the indication decisive.  But there being four, choice was called for, and therefore we felt at liberty to look at Birmingham as well.  There was no situation there, but there might be a livelihood in another way.  Would there not be in so large a town a field for shorthand writing and general reporting?  In Huddersfield I had been appointed Hudderfield correspondent for The Leeds Mercury, The Halifax Courier, The Manchester Examiner, and several other papers; and some of them were willing to take important news from me from Birmingham at a penny a line if I chose to go there.


This would not mean much in the way of income; still, it would be foundation upon which I might build a general local reporting business.  After full consideration, we decided upon the experiment; and declining the four offers, began to arrange for a transfer to Birmingham to a house friends had engaged for us in Great Colmore Street.  The transfer was not a delightful process.  My sister and her family were living with us, and she was only just recovering from an illness, and had to go in blankets.  But necessity knows no law.  We were obliged to clear out on a certain date, and clear out we did, after packing and forwarding furniture by rail, and making up a confusing assortment of bundles to go with us.  We were a melancholy company o the platform of the Huddersfield railway station while we waited in the midst of our nondescript packages for the Manchester train from Leeds.  However, the agony was soon over; but not without distracted hurryings to find seats in a usually well-filled train for a somewhat broken-down company of four adults and four children whom nobody wanted beside them, with their household bundles.  Said bundles contained utensils most inconvenient to travel with, yet necessary on this occasion as we were going to an empty house –the furniture not having had time to arrive.  I remember at the last moment, while hurrying  with the last bundle from the platform, under the excited commands of the guard to be expeditious, a huge wash basin fell out of its wrappings, and smashed in a hundred pieces, to the merriment of the people in the train, who are generally keen observers at that particular moment.  Why mention it?  Well, it was one of those trivial incidents that for no assignable reason stick out in a man’s memory, and it was a dramatic illustration of the fate in store for the kingdoms of men under the figure which alleges that they will be broken in pieces “like a potter’s vessel.”  I had of course to leave the annihilated ruined potter’s vessel, and hurry in with the remains of the bundle.  It was the dead of winter, and the coldest season known for years.  The journey was, therefore, a taste of misery without much weakening in.  But it was accomplished, and we found ourselves all at last in the empty house aforesaid, in which we made shakedowns, and made ourselves fairly comfortable for the night.  My sister, in her weak state, had an unhappy time.  Poor dear, her sorrows are all over long since –as it will be with all our sorrows in due course.  In a day or two, the furniture arrived, and we gradually got into shape and settled in our new position, which we had now time to look fairly in the face, when the excitement and the confusion were all over.


We had burnt our boats, and there was nothing for it but to go forward.  We arrived in Birmingham with all expenses paid, but with nothing in hand.  A tea meeting of the few friends of the truth was convened to welcome us to Birmingham.  At the close of the tea drinking, I was called upon for my contribution to the expenses, and had to part with my last eighteen pence for the honour of being present with my wife.  This was the first of a series of pangs, which the hardness of the way inflicted during the first few months we spent in Birmingham.


To carry out the plan I had formed, it was necessary to engage an office; for we were a mile away from the centre of the town where the work was to be done.  I looked round, and got one in Cannon Street (35, I think), a gloomy back room, which has often figured in my dreams since.  There were plenty of fine offices to be had, but the rents put them quite out of a poor man’s reach.  I had to put up with what I could afford, like thousands of unhappy mortals in this unhappy age, the root of whose unhappiness lies in the mismanagement of human affairs, which is inevitable with the human management of the present dispensation: the sure and certain hope of the abolition of which enabled me to be reconciled to the misery.  After getting an office, the next thing was to get business, which is by no means so easy an affair.  I got circulars printed and sent round, along with testimonials of fitness from various people, including John Bright, who headed the list.


The circulars announced the opening of a general reporting and advertising agency, at the address given, and the preparedness of the issuer thereof to do any kind of reporting or to procure the insertion of advertisements in any paper; but the lines thus cast were unbaited, and the fish simply looked and passed on.  I do not think I got a single advertisement, and as for reporting, one job I think was the only result –some case in a local court having an interest for a small neighbouring town, the editor of the paper of which, having got one of my circulars, wrote to me to report for him.  I tried to cultivate the penny-a-line business for distant papers; but the news was rarely interesting enough to be used and brought nothing.  Once there was a murder, and this lugubrious item took me down into a grimy neighbourhood, which I have never since forgotten.  I do not remember whether it brought any grist to the mill or not.  I rather think I was forestalled by local men who had been in the habit of corresponding with other papers before I came.  The man’s name was Hall, I think.  He had shot his sweetheart under provocation.  He was sentenced to death, but had his sentence commuted to imprisonment for life, in compliance with a numerously-signed petition.  The other day, I noticed he had got our, and had an ovation among a certain sort on his arrival at the railway station.  The penny-a-line was proving a very meagre affair; and thing were getting straitened at home.  So I tried giving lessons in shorthand.  I offered, in a newspaper advertisement, to teach shorthand in thirteen lessons for twenty-one shillings.  I got a few pupils, which kept us going a few weeks, but gradually this died off, and our situation began to grow gloomy.


The Sunday business, which was the business we had come for, was prosperous enough, and cast its balm over the harrowing anxieties of the other days.  Every Sunday morning we repaired to Ann Street Schoolroom (since pulled down and the name of the stree changed to Colmore Row), and met a company of from 15 to 20 men and women to break bread, whom it became my duty to address regularly.  At night I lectured to an audience of perhaps 50 to 75 on the things concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.  This seemed the real and the congenial business of life.  The provision of livelihood stared in upon us as an urgent necessity, which I attended to not without qualms.  With a heavy heart I walked daily to the scantily-furnished office, often to do nothing, after which I dined on one bun and returned to dose the afternoon away.  My partner’s affliction at home added to mine: for in marriage, if joy is increased, so is sorrow, if sorrow is the portion.  But light was at hand.


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